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Banning 'the Box’

President Obama could send a strong signal to employers by barring executive-branch agencies from asking about criminal records on job applications.

  • Nicole Zayas Fortier
  • Abigail Finkelman
May 14, 2014

Crossposted on The American Prospect

Last week, the City of Baltimore approved an ordinance removing “the box,” as it is known among those with a criminal record, from employment applications for companies with 10 or more employees. It joins more than 10 states and 60 cities and counties—including Hawaii; New York City; Berkeley, California; and Jacksonville, Florida—in an effort to provide a second chance to people returning to their community after serving their time in prison. Just 40 miles away in Washington, D.C., President Obama could follow their lead by banning the box for all executive-branch employment.

Today, 70 million Americans have criminal records—nearly one third of the American adult population. Studies reveal that formerly incarcerated people with stable employment are far less likely to reoffend than those who are unemployed. But too often, they’re hindered by the employer practice of asking about prior convictions, which for many serves as an instant disqualification. As a result, former offenders have a permanent stigma that prevents their successful reintegration into society, despite their best efforts.

As a recent Brennan Center report notes, the president has the authority to change its hiring practices. Such a reform would increase federal employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, increasing their chances of rehabilitation and reintegration. Obama could issue an executive order directing the White House Office of Personnel Management, which is tasked with setting policy on federal hiring procedures, and all other executive agencies to remove questions about criminal records from initial employment application forms.

The nearly 2.7 million executive-branch positions shouldn’t be out of reach for everyone with a criminal record.  But the order will also send a message to other public and private employers: Defining applicants by their past mistakes without considering their qualifications and potential is unjust and unnecessary.

There is a wealth of data showing that including “the box” on applications often precludes those with a criminal record from even getting an interview. One study found that employers are 50 percent less likely to call back white applicants with criminal records than those without records. The effect is even more significant for African Americans: They were 64 percent less likely to get a callback.

A few federal agencies have already removed the box from employment applications, preferring to conduct a background check after applicants are further along in the hiring process. But the policy is inconsistent; there is no government-wide directive, even though the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission endorsed banning the box as a best practice in 2012. While it is commendable that some agencies have taken this important step on their own, more should be done.

To be clear, it should not be a blanket ban. Law enforcement and national-security agencies should still have full discretion over their applications, and other agencies could inquire about criminal history later in the hiring process. Further screening would be conducted if an applicant’s conviction could directly affect his or her ability to perform the position’s required duties. But postponing this inquiry would give those with a criminal record a fair shot at landing an interview, and if he or she makes it further, the opportunity to explain a criminal record. Qualified, talented people would no longer be disqualified from good jobs just because of their past.

Banning the box for certain executive branch positions is only a start. This action will excite the movement for states, localities, and other federal branches to follow suit. With a stroke of his pen, President Obama can give millions of Americans a second chance at securing gainful employment—the first step towards a life as part of society, not on its fringes. He should do so.

(Photo: Thinkstock)